Sir William Chambers (1726–96)

Chambers was born in Sweden and travelled to China as a young man where he studied Chinese art and architecture. His publication of Chinese Buildings, Furniture, Dresses, Machines, and Utensils... in 1757 led him to become a leading advocate of Chinoiserie and he went on to design the pagoda and other Chinese structures in Kew Gardens for Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales. He later developed his Chinese interests further with his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), a fanciful elaboration of contemporary English ideas about the naturalistic style of gardening in China.

Chambers studied architecture in Paris and then Italy, where he encountered the classical world first hand, before returning to Britain. Once back in England, in 1755 he established his practice and was appointed architectural tutor to the Prince of Wales, later George III, and also, with Robert Adam, Architect of the King's Works.

In 1759 his serious and academic work Treatise on Civil Architecture appeared, which had a long-term influence on builders; it went into several editions and was still being re-published in 1826. Sir William became one of Wedgwood's powerful patrons and the company produced a black basalt Michelangelo lamp using designs for three figures illustrated in Chambers' book.

Chambers was active in recommending other artists to Josiah and Thomas Bentley, including modeller Henry Webber who played such an active role in sending Wedgwood designs from Italy when working for the company in Rome. Josiah frequently consulted Chambers on matters of taste and design who notably offered to explain to him the distinction between urns and vases. Urns, Josiah decided when Chambers failed to do so, were simpler in design.

Chambers liked Josiah's black basalt - he was unimpressed by jasper considering it too like Robert Adam's ‘filigree' decoration which he did not admire - and lent Josiah models to copy, including the triton and griffin candlesticks. Josiah wrote to Bentley in November 1769: ‘Mr. Chambers lent me the model of the Triton candlestick, & was to have the first pair as a present, pray make my comp.ts. with them', and in November 1771: ‘The Griffin Candlestick is alter'd sure enough, for Hackwood was oblig'd to new model it. I hope the world will not have Mr. Chamber's Eyes'  He perhaps also suggested the figure of a lion, produced in black basalt, based on the beasts sited on the staircase leading to the Capitol in Rome.

Chambers was the major rival of Adam in British neo-classicism, however his designs combined the style of the antique with neo-Palladiansim; he was also more international in outlook and was influenced by continental neo-classicism.





Sir William Chambers, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, ©  Royal Academy of Arts, London

Sir William Chambers, portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds
© Royal Academy of Arts, London